We love Alan Dershowitz. And we love Justice Scalia. So at first we were intrigued to hear that Dersh had challenged Scalia to a debate over his recent dissent in Davis. (See our post on it here.)
But it turns out that Dersh is just being disingenuous. Pity.
Quick recap: Davis was convicted of a murder. Since then, several witnesses have recanted. He filed a habeas petition directly with the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, passed it on to the District Court to decide whether Davis really is innocent. Justice Scalia dissented, saying that the District Court doesn’t have the power to do anything, even if it does find him innocent.
The reason why Scalia said that — and he really does have a point — is because the law in question only lets the District Court act if there is well-settled Supreme Court precedent allowing it. Scalia pointed out the simple fact, known to any death penalty scholar, that there is zero Supreme Court precedent on this issue. And that is because the Supreme Court has gone out of its way to avoid ever deciding one way or the other whether there is a constitutional claim of actual innocence.
Here’s what Scalia said:
This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.
That clearly means nothing more nor less than that the Supreme Court simply hasn’t decided the issue yet.
Now of course there have been plenty of bloggers out there who have mischaracterized and misinterpreted this to mean that Scalia thinks it’s constitutional to execute someone who is actually innocent, so long as their trial wasn’t otherwise defective. That’s not what he said, but there are many who find it easy to believe that he did say that. And there are many more who just don’t get the concept. That’s fine, because those bloggers aren’t highly respected constitutional scholars.
But Dersh is a highly respected constitutional scholar. He has no excuse for misinterpreting what Scalia said. And yet that is exactly what Dersh did in his blog post today on The Daily Beast.
Dersh said he never thought he would see the day when a Justice of the Supreme Court would write an opinion containing the quotation above. Then he explained what he says Scalia meant:
Let us be clear precisely what this means. If a defendant were convicted, after a constitutionally unflawed trial, of murdering his wife, and then came to the Supreme Court with his very much alive wife at his side, and sought a new trial based on newly discovered evidence (namely that his wife was alive), these two justices would tell him, in effect: “Look, your wife may be alive as a matter of fact, but as a matter of constitutional law, she’s dead, and as for you, Mr. Innocent Defendant, you’re dead, too, since there is no constitutional right not to be executed merely because you’re innocent.”
That is absolutely not what Scalia was saying, and Dershowitz ought to know that. He created a straw man, then spent an entire blog post arguing against it.
That was bad enough. But then Dersh made it worse, by challenging Scalia to debate him on it. Dershowitz pointed out that Scalia has publicly promised that, if the Constitution ever compels him to act in violation of the mandates of his Catholic faith, he will resign as a Justice instead. And Scalia has also stated that he could not authorize an execution if he believed it would be immoral.
So Dershowitz says the stakes of their debate would be high: If Scalia loses, he’d either have to change his jurisprudence, or he’d have to resign from the Supreme Court.
But Dersh challenges Scalia to defend a position that Scalia has never taken, that “his constitutional views [permit] the execution of factually innocent defendants.”
And though Dersh imposes high stakes on the man he challenges, he imposes none on himself. If he loses, he loses nothing.
So our favorite constitutional scholar has challenged someone to defend a position he never took, with extreme penalties for losing, and at no risk to himself? Badly done, Dersh. Bad form.
And by the by, the majority in Davis has tried to force the issue. Whichever way the District Court goes on this, it’s coming back to the Supreme Court, so they may well have to decide once and for all whether there is a constitutional claim of actual innocence. They may not, because this isn’t the strongest case of innocence — it’s a he-said-he-said situation with witnesses who merely recanted testimony — and so they may have other grounds to avoid the issue.
But if they do decide the issue, we have no trouble predicting that Scalia would opine that the our law does provide for a claim of actual innocence. He’d probably refer to the fact that English courts going back to the Middle Ages widely accepted the principle that innocence trumps other considerations. He’d probably quote Fortescue and Blackstone. He could well throw in the maxims of tutius semper est errare in acquietando quam in puniendo, ex parte misericordiae, quam ex parte justiae, and of prestat reum nocentum absolve, quam ex prohibitis indiciis & illegitima probatione condemnari. Heck, if he’s feeling mischievous, he might even cite the rules of Star Chamber (such as In Camera Stellata, 29 April 1607, in Court of Star Chamber, Les Reportes del Cases in Camera Stellata 1593 to 1620).
We wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And Dersh shouldn’t be, either.